21st Century Stern Steerer

21st Century Stern Steerer

by Randy Rogoski

ice boat Stern steerer
Erik Sawyer steers as Jay Yaeso trims during Michigander’s maiden voyage March 2011 on Green Bay, near Suamico, Wisconsin

Most of our club’s members sail and race small single-handed iceboats that are easy to transport and set up, with one big exception.Erik Sawyer’s boat, Michigander, is 40-feet long and weighs 1,400 pounds. It’s in a class by itself. For one thing, it has a name. It also has an enclosed trailer the size of a semi. He easily owns the largest ice yacht in the club, and one of the largest sailing anywhere. And he built it himself, with a little help from his friends.

He needs help from his friends to sail and race it too. This “A”-class Stern Steerer carries 360 square feet of sloop-rigged sail. “That’s a lot of horsepower” said Sawyer, who won his division at the 2012 Northwest Ice Yacht Association regatta February 24 and 25 on Green Bay.

Sawyer sailed on Green Bay nine days this season, a lot of sailing compared to most club members. “I’m expecting a tax bill from the State of Wisconsin,” because of numerous trips to the State over the years to build the boat and sail, he said.

Sawyer’s roots are on the Bay, and with the classic 19th-century-ice-yacht design with the runner plank forward and the steering aft. His parents, Chip and Sue Sawyer, hail from Menominee, the first Upper Peninsula city on Green Bay across the Michigan-Wisconsin border. His father grew up there sailing Stern Steerers. Like his uncles, he also works in the merchant marine. Sawyer, 47, is a captain for the Interlake Steamship Co. which operates a fleet of Great Lakes bulk cargo carriers. When the Soo Locks close for the winter, he can devote his time to ice boat building and sailing.

He grew up sailing a kid-sized Stern Steerer, has owned a Renegade and a Skeeter, but always wanted a big Stern Steerer. About 1990, he brought home a 40-foot Stern Steerer named Eclipse from Pewaukee, Wis. After the mast and plank were broken in capsizes, Sawyer built replacements from lighter materials using composite construction.

In 2004 he went on a 3,600-mile sailing trip to Canyon Ferry Reservoir, Mont. with his dad and Don Fischer. While becalmed for five days and over many beers, the idea was hatched to build a new fuselage that would be half the weight of the original. Plans were drawn based on proven designs with a Green Bay friend, Jay Yaeso. In 2009, the project to build the fuselage began in Yaeso’s workshop above his garage that was finished in March 2011.

ice boat stern steerer fuselage
Fuselage under construction in Yaeso’s second-story workshop in Green Bay.

It took 10 week-long trips, much sawing, clamping and 40 gallons of glue to build the hull from Sitka spruce. A crane was hired to lift the fuselage through a second-story window to a waiting truck.

Sawyer also built a 45-foot enclosed trailer to carry Michigander, its 39-foot mast, 28-foot plank, and runners. The components ride on a caster-mounted dolly that slides out the rear hatch. The weight of the loaded two-axle trailer is 3,500 pounds. It takes three sailors an hour to rig the boat and get her ready to go.

He hauled his program to Green Bay and sailed six days from Feb. 4 to 12, sailing with friends Murray Pulver and Dan Baldwin. He returned for the Northwest Ice Yacht Association regatta Feb. 24 and 25 to race in very good conditions. “It was the first time on the starting line,” Erik said.

The NIYA is a multi-class regatta that dates from the early 20th century. Fleets of DNs, Renegades, Skeeters and Stern Steerers race in rotation. A family tradition, Sawyer has attended this regatta many times. It’s fun to watch the other races, enjoy the party on the ice, and the banquet on shore, he said.

This season’s regatta was sailed on big ice at the shallow southern end of Green Bay. He could drive his tow vehicle and trailer onto 14 inches of ice for easy set up. They sailed four lap races around a course set with 1.5-mile legs. The wind blew 10-12 mph, the temperature was 35 degrees, the sun was shining, “It was just perfect,” Erik said.

Classic ice yachts that may have given Michigander a race were spooked by the weather forecast; the skippers of 56-foot Deuce and 42-foot Taku didn’t attend. Sawyer dominated the small Stern Steerer field to win his division. “I could have lapped ’em if I tried.”

When the Renegade’s were pushing during their race, Erik and crew could hardly hold her back while waiting in the pits. He is so impressed with the boats horsepower in a fair breeze he wants a 250-square-foot mainsail for better control in more wind. He is also building a set of runners from edge-holding 440c stainless steel to go along with the set made of soft steel from the original Eclipse.

In a 10-mph wind he was sailing 60 to 65 mph. But that’s just a warm up.

For every hour of sailing an iceboat, there are many more hours building, traveling to the ice, setting up, waiting around, and repairing the boat when it breaks. To spend as much time sailing Michigander as he’s spent working on it, Erik said he would have to live 200 years to catch up.

“It’s that 80 mile-an-hour ride, that’s why we do it,” he said.

And he has other projects in the works. “That’s the beauty of an iceboat. They’re never done.”